A popular bill, years in the making, that would establish a task force to preserve Florida’s African American cemeteries is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
Attempts in previous Sessions to pass similar legislation were not successful.
Tampa Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell carried the House to a nearly unanimous vote in both chambers. The bill passed its final legislative hurdle on the Senate floor Thursday.
The hidden history of Florida’s African American cemeteries was brought to light in Driskell and Cruz’s district by reporting from Paul Guzzo of the Tampa Bay Times. Guzzo was tipped off by cemetery researcher Ray Reed about death certificates Reed had come across listing a burial ground called Zion Cemetery that Reed could not find.
After months of research, Guzzo and reporting partner James Borchuck discovered more than 800 people were buried along North Florida Avenue in what was believed to be Tampa’s first all-Black cemetery.
“In my local community we all watched in horror as mass graves were uncovered in Zion Cemetery,” Cruz said.
That discovery started informal investigations around the state, which uncovered more African American cemeteries. Driskell said African American cemeteries have been discovered under MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, near Tropicana Field in St. Pete, in Tallahassee under a golf course and in Jacksonville under a road.
Cruz said there could be as many as 3,000 unpreserved African American cemeteries in the state.
“With this being an issue statewide, it’s an honor to have filed this bill, not only on behalf of my hometown Hillsborough, but for all Floridians who have not been able to connect with their ancestral paths,” Driskell said.
Abandoned and neglected burial grounds are not an emerging issue in Florida. A burial ground task force mobilized by the Legislature in 1998 reported that 40% to 50% of the state’s cemeteries are neglected or abandoned, according to a staff analysis. But cemeteries used to be segregated, and there was a disparity between the way White cemeteries and Black cemeteries were maintained.
“There are lost cemeteries being found daily. What we’ve learned as a society is that we cannot continue to run away from our collective history, and we can no longer allow others to rewrite that history or at its worst, force our history off the pages of time,” Sen. Darryl Rouson said during debate Thursday.
To dig into the issue, the bill (HB 37) would have the Department of State create a 10-member task force to identify unmarked or abandoned African American burial grounds throughout the state.
“A task force seems like a small thing I know. But this task force really can look at the best practices and think through policies and procedures so we can honor and provide dignity to our community and to the dead,” Driskell said on the House floor last week.
The task force’s findings and recommendations would be reported to the Governor, Senate President, House Speaker and Minority Leaders in both chambers.
Any fiscal impact of the bill will be picked up by the State Department. Task force members won’t be compensated but will be entitled to travel expenses and a per diem.
Under the bill, the task force would hold its first meeting by Aug. 1 and would sunset its mission by March 11, 2022.